Long: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s smile was better than a trophy

2 Comments

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. grimaced briefly, revealing just how tough it is to compete at Darlington Raceway. Add that this was his lone NASCAR start of the year and the challenge was even greater.

“It wasn’t a storybook win or anything like that,” Earnhardt said on pit road after placing sixth (he would be scored fifth after Denny Hamlin’s winning car failed inspection and was disqualified).

But then a smile emerged.

“It just feels good to be competitive,” said Earnhardt, who returns to his regular NBC Sports duties for Sunday’s broadcast of the Southern 500. “It feels good that everybody has a smile on their face.”

He then shared a story about the weekend, one of many that made this a special time to him. Earnhardt talked about working with his cousin, Danny Earnhardt, as his car chief this weekend.

“He (told) me during practice, “Man, it would be cool if me and you could race together every single week,” Earnhardt said as his smile widened.

So, while it wasn’t a win, Saturday’s Xfinity race still was something Earnhardt could walk away from feeling good.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. races under Chase Briscoe during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

He’s already said he would like to run in the Xfinity race next March at Homestead-Miami Speedway — the site of his final Cup start in 2017 — if Hellmann’s exercises the option on its contract to sponsor him in a race next year.

But even beyond that, how much longer can Earnhardt go running one national series race a year and remain competitive?

“I picked the hardest track,” Earnhardt said after wiping his brow.

“So maybe if I go someplace a little easier, I can do it a few more years. It’s really however long Hellmann’s want to do it. I don’t want to do more than one a year. I don’t think I do. I’ll do one a year until I’m wasting my time and everybody else’s. I feel like I did a good job today and I didn’t really feel like I wasted my team’s time. As long as I don’t feel like I don’t belong in there, I’ll keep doing it.”

The fans appreciated his effort, giving him the loudest cheers before and after the race.

“He’s the people’s champ,” Hamlin said. “I think a lot of Dale and Amy. I’m glad he still gets to play and have fun. I’d imagine if I had a race team, I’d want to do the same thing. I don’t know if I would choose Darlington if I was him, it’s a tough track. Goodness, it’s a big test. He ran fine out there. All the restarts, it didn’t look like he was timid at all on any of them. So, hopefully, he continues to run one or two here and there.”

Even for as challenging as Darlington was, Earnhardt enjoyed his day because he ran well. 

Earnhardt was reunited with longtime spotter T.J. Majors and after Earnhardt finished seventh in stage two, Majors asked his driver if he was having fun.

Earnhardt replied with an enthusiastic “Yeah, I’m having fun.”

This wasn’t a joyride, though. He spent part of his day racing Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe for position. After crossing the finish line, Earnhardt noted they could have used more grip before thanking his team for its effort.

For all the fun. realization hit Earnhardt.

“About halfway through the race, I was starting to remember all the reasons why I don’t do it anymore,” he said. “It’s hot. It’s hard. It’s hard.

“What I’m really reminded of when I get to do these races is just how much we ought to respect the drivers that do it every single week because it is so hard. Not just driving the race but all the grind throughout the week, testing, debriefs, the study, watching races and film, there’s so much to it and it starts to pop in my head and I remember why I’m glad I’m not in that grind anymore. But just going practicing, qualifying and running the race, that’s fun.”

And then Earnhardt grinned.

While there was no trophy to take home, that smile showed what Saturday meant to Earnhardt.

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin remains No. 1 after Kansas

Leave a comment

For the second consecutive week, Denny Hamlin is atop this week’s NBC Sports’ NASCAR Power Rankings.Hamlin was selected unanimously.

Making the biggest jump in the rankings was Kyle Busch (from tied for seventh last week to No. 2 this week).

Falling the most was Ryan Blaney, who dropped from second last week to a tie for ninth this week.

Here are the power rankings ahead of the Round of 8 playoff race at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC):

1. Denny Hamlin (40 points): Kansas win is his fifth of the season, tying for his most victories in a season since 2012. The question grows louder: Is this the year he finally wins a Cup title? Last week: First.

2. Kyle Busch (34 points): While he remains mired in one of the longest winless streaks of his career, it’s hard to imagine him not rising to the occasion in the next three races to assure his spot at Miami. Last week: Tied for seventh.

3. Chase Elliott (33 points): He just barely avoided elimination at Kansas. He needs to win one of the next three races if he’s to be assured of racing for the championship. The question is, can he? Last week: Third.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (29 points): Slow pit stop late hurt him but still finished sixth. Has five finishes of seventh or better in the last six races. Last week: Tied for seventh.

5. Kevin Harvick (23 points): It’s time for “the Closer” to reemerge in the next three races to lock himself into a championship berth at Miami. Don’t be surprised if he wins at Texas or Phoenix – or both. Last week: Sixth.

6. Jimmie Johnson (11 points): While his strong performance in the last five races – four top-10s and one 11th-place finish – has come a little too late, Johnson could really shake up the playoffs with a win in the third round. He’s capable and has been building towards it. Will it happen? Last week: Unranked.

7. Kyle Larson (10 points): Not a clean day at Kansas. He and his team need to step up in the Round of 8. Last week: Tied for fourth.

8. William Byron (9 points): After a strong Kansas showing, could be a dark horse in the final four races. While eliminated from the playoffs, he still has the potential to win a race, particularly at a short track like Martinsville or Phoenix. Last week: Unranked.

(tie) 9. Joey Logano (8 points): Yes, Joey is right, every point matters. That attitude is why he’s still alive in these playoffs. Last week: Tied for fourth.

(tie) 9. Ryan Blaney (8 points): See Kyle Larson. It’s pretty much the same story for Blaney. Last week: Second.

Others receiving votes: Clint Bowyer (6 points), Kurt Busch (3 points), Ryan Preece (3 points), Brandon Jones (2 points), Matt DiBenedetto (1 point).

Goodyear tire info for Martinsville Speedway

Leave a comment

NASCAR Cup and Truck teams continue their respective playoffs this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

The Cup Series begins its Round of 8, while the Gander Outdoors Truck Series will contest its middle race of the Round of 6.

Cup and Truck teams will run the same tire setup at Martinsville, the same tires both series have run at the .526-mile bullring since 2017.

It’s getting later in the fall and we are likely to have cloudy conditions and temperatures in the 60-degree range at Martinsville this week, so track temps will be low, making it more difficult for the track to take rubber,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Because of the time of year we run at Martinsville, we’ve worked hard over the past several years to come up with a tread compound that will lay rubber in the concrete corners, even in cool temperatures.

Generally, Martinsville has produced some of the best racing on the circuit and that only seems to have been enhanced by the track consistently taking rubber and having multiple racing lines. We continue to work on keeping up with Martinsville and making adjustments where needed, holding a test there this past summer and looking ahead to 2020 when we will have a full fledged night race at the track.”

According to wunderground.com, the forecast calls for a temperature of 58 degrees with a 40 percent chance of rain at the scheduled 1:30 p.m. ET start time for Saturday’s Truck race, and a temperature of 66 degrees with a 19 percent chance of green flag at the 3 p.m. ET scheduled start time for Sunday’s Cup race.

Here is the tire information for this weekend’s races at Martinsville:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Short Track Radials

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying/start of race and 9 sets for race (8 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice); Truck: 5 sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4588; Right-side – D-4722

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,221 mm (87.44 in.); Right-side — 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 10 psi; Left Rear — 10 psi; Right Front — 23 psi; Right Rear — 22 psi

As on most NASCAR ovals 1 mile or less in length, teams will not run inner liners in their tires at Martinsville.

NASCAR penalty report after Kansas

Leave a comment

NASCAR issued one penalty from this past weekend’s racing action at Kansas Speedway.

Chris Gayle, crew chief for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR Cup Toyota driven by Erik Jones, has been fined $10,000 for lug nut(s) not properly installed following Sunday’s race.

There were no penalties assessed to the teams of Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick stemming from the altercation following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Ron Hornaday Jr., Bobby Labonte to take part in Martinsville Truck race activities

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Martinsville Speedway will honor one NASCAR Hall of Famer and one inductee before Saturday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 Truck Series race.

Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. will serve as grand marshal for the race, while Bobby Labonte, who will be inducted into the Hall in January, will serve as the honorary starter.

Bobby Labonte. Photo: Getty Images.

We are honored to have 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday Jr. as Grand Marshal and 2020 inductee Bobby Labonte as Honorary Starter at the first NASCAR Hall of Fame 200,” NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelly said in a statement. “Ron is the series’ only four-time champion. As the 2000 premier series champion and 1992 Xfinity champion, Bobby is one of only 31 drivers who has won races in all three NASCAR national series with his lone truck series win coming at Martinsville.”

Said Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway: “We appreciate the NASCAR Hall of Fame making it possible to have two great NASCAR champions available to meet our fans Saturday morning before the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200. Having Ron and Bobby be a part of our race weekend is special for everyone at Martinsville Speedway.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski